Pilot Sentenced to Prison for Drinking While Flying

By Mike

The typical DUI arrest takes place in a car, as police officers try to prevent land-bound drivers from hurting themselves or passengers in other cars. Arrests for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, though, rarely happen in the sky.

Such an incident, however, occurred a few years ago when a United Airlines pilot was arrested for flying while drunk. And the consequences of that poor decision recently came home to roost.

According to a report from, a federal judge sentenced 33-year-old Aaron Jason Cope to six months of prison and six months of home detention for flying a commercial plane while intoxicated in 2009.

Cope should consider himself lucky, as the judge levied a sentence that was much lower than the possible maximum term. Sources indicate that Cope faced a possible maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, with a maximum fine of $250,000.

The relatively innocent language of the charge, which convicted Cope of “operating a common carrier under the influence of alcohol,” belies the serious nature of the offense.

Cope was arrested on December 8, 2009, after a co-pilot noticed the smell of alcohol on his breath. Despite the smell, though, the co-pilot admitted that Cope “appeared to be speaking and thinking clearly.”

Fortunately for the passengers, Cope had spent the flight monitoring various systems on the airplane, and did not play a direct role in the steering of the aircraft.

When the United Express flight touched down in Denver after departing from Austin, Texas, the co-pilot, who had grown suspicious due to Cope’s odor, told Cope that he should probably go home sick.

However, after speaking with company officials, the co-pilot told Cope that the airline wanted him to take a breathalyzer test at an alcohol testing facility in Denver International Airport’s main terminal.

At that facility, Cope showed a blood alcohol content of .094, which is more than twice the legal limit for pilots of .04, as established by the Federal Aviation Administration. For comparison’s sake, the legal limit for people operating motor vehicles in most U.S. states is .08.

After he was caught with a high BAC, Cope admitted to officials that he had gone to a bar with a friend and bought beer from a convenience store the night before his flight.

Once the news struck the media, it naturally caused a firestorm of public criticism. Cope’s co-pilot, however, was praised for potentially saving the lives of several passengers.

After Cope left the flight from Austin, he had been scheduled to lead a flight full of 70 to 80 passengers later that morning. His co-pilot wisely convinced him to stay off that flight, and ultimately led him to the alcohol testing facility in the airport.

Cases of drunk flying are relatively rare, so, when they do occur, they naturally become large events. Nevertheless, despite their rarity, incidents of flying while intoxicated are taken very seriously, as evidence by the court’s decision to levy a six-month prison sentence.